United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire

| 22 Nov 2021
Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire

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All three of these behemoths exude the inimitable sovereignty that so many of our modern everyday cars lack.

So Junior wants to take a couple of extra friends to baseball practice? Not a problem: they can either squeeze together on the vast rear bench, or the extra row of seats in the trunk is deployed. There’s still plenty of space for bats, gloves and sports bags behind it.

Meanwhile, Mom and Pop sit up front, ignore the raging offspring and crank up the radio to let Don McLean’s American Pie or Sammy Davis Jnr’s Candy Man carry their cares away.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The Buick Estate Wagon is arguably the most stylish of our trio with its ‘Coke-bottle’ hips

The beefy torque of the enormous V8, the seamless shifting of the automatic transmission and the buttery-soft chassis set-up allow for relaxed cruising to the field of play.

And if this five-and-a-half-metre-long battleship happens to catch something while negotiating the parking lot, then what the heck? The massive sheet metal can take plenty of punishment.

Unfortunately, as a result all too many of these full-sized station wagons have aged disgracefully over the years.

The bumps got more frequent, the dents bigger. Hot-dog sauce and popcorn kernels were ground into the carpets and the vinyl trim, and the multiple effort-saving electrical aids began to fail.

Eventually the time came for a new, more modern family car, perhaps a minivan or a newfangled MPV?

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The Buick has a clever disappearing tailgate that slides into the roof/floor…

Half a century later, however, these warrior station wagons are once again the obvious choice of practical classic for fans of automotive Americana.

But a perfectly preserved piece of jewellery such as the 1972 Buick Estate Wagon shown here, a model styled under the direction of legendary designer and Corvette Sting Ray author Bill Mitchell, is a rare find indeed.

In remarkable condition, the curvaceous rear of this handsome General Motors production also houses a very special highlight, only offered by its maker for a brief period: the so-called ‘clamshell tailgate’.

Like the grappling arm of a building-site JCB, the electrically operated rear window and bootlid execute a perfect reverse-pincer movement as the glass slides up under the rooflining and the tailgate flap disappears behind the bumper into the underbody.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
…and there it goes

The performance is worthy of applause, even if sceptics can immediately see the problem in a near-50-year-old classic: namely how this system, manufactured with the American tolerances of the day, could possibly survive the intervening decades, and how do you fix it if it goes wrong?

Buick owner Tom Witzel has an easy answer: “I buy my cars according to their condition.”

And still showing fewer than 600 miles on the clock, this immaculate example’s technology should still have plenty of years of faithful use left in it.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The three-piece instrument binnacle is similar to the contemporary Buick Riviera’s, and the buttoned front bench seats three; three rows of seating give more carrying capacity in the Buick than in a modern MPV

Only the rear windscreen rubber is showing its age, yet it’s one of the few parts for these well-supported cars that is no longer available – and scratch-building a reproduction is prohibitively expensive.

On the other hand, the huge 7.5-litre V8 under the no less massive bonnet is, says Witzel, “almost unbreakable”.

Its eight thumping cylinders provide a surprisingly meagre 228bhp, but the hefty 360lb ft of torque is available from just 2600rpm.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The whopping 455cu in V8 produces a fairly lowly 228bhp but plenty of torque

With its woodgrain-effect décor and the tapered chromed roof-rails, the Estate Wagon has the air – and the dimensions – of a luxury yacht.

This impression continues on the inside, luxuriating in its three rows of buttoned-leatherette seats with space for nine to perch in comfort.

With fewer people on board you can discover another highlight of station wagons of this era: if the rear two rows are folded down, a vast and completely flat load area is created.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The Buick Estate Wagon is more than 19ft long

This is a talent at which the Chrysler Town & Country excels: the drop-down tailgate that opens flat is also covered with carpet and extends the load bay far beyond the rear bumper.

According to the official factory figures, this creates a luggage area that’s 1.40m wide and 2.43m long – as in any one of these three, that is easily large enough for it to be used as an impromptu campervan.

The 1967 Chrysler shown here is also the most powerful representative of the American cargo-space miracle, from a time before American V8s were progressively strangled as the increasingly environmentally conscious 1970s marched on.

Its eight-cylinder engine generates 330bhp from its 6.3 litres, and that wasn’t even the peak of the range at the time: those who wanted more could order their T&C station wagon with a 380bhp version of the new B/RB-series engines that were brought in to replace the legendary first-generation Hemi.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The marker lights on the wing-tops help when negotiating narrow roads in this classic Chrysler

Fire up and the Chrysler initially sounds like a sports car, but it certainly doesn’t feel like one: you don’t even want to think about cornering quickly in this car.

Nonetheless, it’s a great piece of theatre when the V8 burbles away and more than two tonnes of steel are set in motion.

It’s easy to sight your course using the small marker lights on the peak of each front wing, and the direction is corrected again and again with the over-light assisted steering via that thin, two-spoke wheel.

This is a car of opposites: the body is huge, the engine brash, yet all of the functions are controlled by filigree switches.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The Chrysler Town & Country’s mighty 330bhp V8

This particular Town & Country, like so many American workhorses of the era, was obviously well used by its previous keepers, and current owner Andreas Breuhahn plans to fettle it over the coming years.

The first step will be to replace the Mexican blanket that hides the damaged front bench base with a fresh cover, and the good news is that original trim can still be found.

This is one of the great joys of an American classic: the tried-and-tested large-scale production technology that remained in use for decades means that the majority of components are still readily available today, either used or new.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The spindly steering wheel marks out the Mopar as a child of the ’60s

The earlier car feels a little less generously equipped than the Buick, with manual rather than electric windows and a slightly more spartan finish.

But it’s no less stylish, with a dashboard that picks up design cues from both the front grille and the tail-lights.

It’s striking on the outside, too, thanks to its spatted rear wheels and sharp creases along the flanks.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The crisply styled shape and spatted rear wheels give the Chrysler a touch of class; roof-rails flow into rear-pillar grabhandles

Unlike the family-tested Chrysler, ‘our’ mint 1973 Ford Country Squire offers a glimpse of pure luxury, 1970s style, courtesy of its top-of-the-line LTD specification.

It’s no accident that the radiator grille is slightly reminiscent of a Mercedes-Benz – the Blue Oval was striving for new heights at the time, not least with its upscale Mercury and (above all) Lincoln brands, and from 1950-’91 the Country Squire was the premium station wagon in Ford’s full-size range.

Inside, the most striking example of this upwardly mobile thinking is the doorcards, which wear ‘LTD’ crests and are ostentatiously wrapped in padded brown leatherette to match the sofa-like bench seats, right up to the bootlid – there are no dull and hard-wearing finishes in this luxurious load-lugger.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
There is no shortage of body roll from the full-size Ford

There are also some clever details to be found, such as the neat little spoiler mounted on the rear of the roof-rack – complete with its own woodgrain finish – that prevents exhaust gases from entering the cabin when the rear window is open.

In order to offer the customer the best-possible loading convenience, the huge tailgate can be opened either downwards, like the Chrysler, or to the side.

The latter means to the left, ideally sited for nations where you drive on the right so that the enormous boot can be easily filled or unloaded from the kerbside.

This preference towards the home market also applies to the folding rear benches of all three wagons: access to the third row of seats in the Buick is only possible via the passenger side, and that of the Ford can only be unlocked from the right-hand side of the car.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The Ford’s plush cabin is in superb order

One area where the Country Squire comes up decidedly short in this company is in its power output.

Mustering just 165bhp from a generous 6.6-litre displacement, the Ford is a graphic demonstration of the direction in which American V8s were heading due to new Federal emissions regulations, with compression ratios reduced to lower fuel consumption without compromising on the size of the engines.

There’s further evidence of government interference in those massive appendages front and rear.

In order to keep repair costs down, these ‘5mph bumpers’ were designed to withstand smaller shunts without damage. Fortunately, however, because American manufacturers changed their cars from model year to model year anyway, the measures could be accommodated more easily than on the many European vehicles that were equipped with notorious rubber covers for the US market.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The Ford’s strangled 400cu in V8 musters just 165bhp

To service the various brands incorporated within the Big Three, these wagons reappeared in several guises as they packed dealerships across the United States: GM also offered the Buick Estate Wagon as an Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, as a Pontiac Grand Safari and as a Chevrolet Impala in Townsman, Kingswood and Brookwood trims.

The Mercury Colony Park was a twin for the Ford Country Squire, with both models sharing the so-called ‘full-size’ platform with the Lincoln Continental of the same era.

A few years later a 1979 Country Squire would even be chosen by customising legend George Barris to form the basis for the ‘Wagon Queen Family Truckster’, transport for the ever-unfortunate Griswald clan in the 1983 Chevy Chase vehicle National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
The roof-rack-mounted rear spoiler of the Ford prevents exhaust gases from entering the cabin

So it’s clear that if you opt for an American station wagon you have a huge choice, at least in theory.

Tracking down a decent one, however, particularly in Europe, is likely to prove more of a challenge.

In the USA there are certainly still one or two examples to be found in family hands, but you’ll need a fair amount of luck to stumble over one during a holiday Stateside.

Better to work with one of the European firms who specialise in sourcing cars to order, working with local scouts on the ground in the USA.

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire
Cars like these were once on every American driveway – today they can be hard to find

“First there is a briefing to understand exactly what the customer wants,” explains Michael Nebert from one such company, Autocargo24. “Then our people will go looking.”

When calculating the potential costs, you should always take into account whether the car has to be transferred from sunny California or from the East Coast: even a supposed bargain can start to look pricey when you factor in freight and customs fees, plus insurance, taxes and the legalities of preparing a car for the roads on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

Real bargains have become rarities even in their homeland, and it’s always worth paying a few dollars more for a better car with your preferred spec levels.

But find the right model and any one of these wagons will bring the flavour of ’70s US family entertainment to European roads, and all remain real rarities in the local classic car scene.

Brave the import adventure and have a little patience, and you’ll be rewarded with an incomparable driving experience as soon as your full-size station wagon rolls out of the container.

Words: Thomas Pfahl

Images: Wim Woeber


Factfiles

Classic & Sports Car – United estates: Buick Estate Wagon, Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Country Squire

Buick Estate Wagon

  • Sold/number built 1971-’76/172,000 (1972 only)
  • Construction steel chassis, steel body
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 7468cc V8, Rochester four-barrel carburettor
  • Max power 228bhp @ 4000rpm
  • Max torque 360lb ft @ 2600rpm
  • Transmission three-speed Hydramatic automatic, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
  • Length 19ft ¼in (5799mm)
  • Width 6ft 8in (2032mm)
  • Height 4ft 9in (1450mm)
  • Wheelbase 10ft 7in (3226mm)
  • Weight 5115lb (2320kg)
  • 0-60mph 11.5 secs
  • Top speed 114mph
  • Mpg 12.7
  • Price new $5567 (1972)
  • Price now £8-15,000*
     

Chrysler Town & Country

  • Sold/number built 1965-’68/14,703 (1967 only)
  • Construction unitary steel, steel subframes
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 6277cc V8, Carter four-barrel carburettor
  • Max power 330bhp @ 4800rpm
  • Max torque 425lb ft @ 2900rpm
  • Transmission three-speed TorqueFlite automatic, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, torsion bars rear live axle, semi-elliptic springs; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
  • Length 18ft 3½in (5575mm)
  • Width 6ft 6¾in (1999mm)
  • Height 4ft 7in (1400mm)
  • Wheelbase 10ft 1in (3073mm)
  • Weight 4674lb (2120kg)
  • 0-60mph 9.5 secs
  • Top speed 118mph
  • Mpg 12.9
  • Price new $4286 (1967)
  • Price now £11-17,000*
     

Ford Country Squire

  • Sold/number built 1969-’78/7,850,000 (full-size total)
  • Construction steel chassis, steel body
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 6590cc V8, Motorcraft two-barrel carburettor
  • Max power 165bhp @ 3800rpm
  • Max torque 300lb ft @ 2000rpm
  • Transmission three-speed Cruise-O-matic automatic, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, trailing arms, coil springs; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
  • Length 17ft 11¾in (5480mm)
  • Width 6ft 7in (2007mm)
  • Height 4ft 7in (1400mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 10in (2997mm)
  • Weight 4504lb (2043kg)
  • 0-60mph 13.6 secs
  • Top speed 106mph
  • Mpg 14.1
  • Price new $3931 (1971)
  • Price now £10-16,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication


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